You guys, it can’t be an accident. It can’t be an accident that the opportunity to write about Julia Roberts twice in one day happens the same week as her birthday, on Saturday, when she will be 50. My headline is in reference to the Oprah interview that I still want to believe is coming – the one where she crows, loudly, about the age of our favourite leading woman, as though it’s an award she’s won, making it to 50. You can see it, right? I still believe it could happen, but in the absence of that, writing about Julia’s latest role, in Ben Is Back, starring opposite Lucas Hedges as a mother who suspects there’s something amiss when her prodigal son returns, is her birthday gift to me. Right?
I know I’m making a lot of this, but you guys, come on. This was the last great ‘movie star’, the first woman ever to get $20 million for a role, who conquered Hollywood as much as anyone can – then tapped out for roughly a decade. Yes, I know she did Eat Pray Love and The Normal Heart, but the narrative around those was ‘well, I want to spend time with my kids, so the roles have to be really good to get me out of hiding.’
That makes sense, given that her kids were small—but can we talk about the privilege and chutzpah and balls it takes to be able to say “okay, I’m out, but I’ll be back” and then actually be able to pull it off? Because three roles in a year is ‘back’. Julia is working again, and I feel like I’ve been waiting forever.
The question, I guess, is what ‘back’ means. She’s starring in Wonder, which is gonna be the Stepmom of the holiday season – winsome and heartwarming. Plus she’s doing the Amazon show Homecoming, where she’s literally the only name attached on IMDB (besides creator Sam Esmail). Now there’s Ben Is Back, where she’s starring opposite an Oscar nominee. They’re all great-looking projects. They’re all happening within the next year…
So here’s my question. What’s the strategy? She’s clearly ‘back to work’ – her kids are 10 and almost 13, so she’s maybe feeling freer – and obviously anything with Julia Roberts attached is going to be an automatic greenlight. She can do just about anything she wants… but while that might seem liberating, I look at it and all I can see is pressure.
When you’re the once-and-maybe-still biggest name going, when you are a virtual box-office guarantee in a world that maybe doesn’t have those anymore, and when your success was all in rom-coms, a genre that’s all but dead – what do you choose? She could do nothing but heartwarming if she wanted to, and they’d probably be successful movies… but there’s no prestige there. Then again, she’s not choosing ‘ugly-ing’ projects either, not by a long shot. Julia Roberts never has – and never will? – play a serial killer. I’m sure she’s been offered… but she either doesn’t want to, or knows better. Because Julia is only interested in setting herself up to win.
Here’s what I love most about Julia Fiona – she is not under any illusions about her talent, or her appeal. She knows what people love about her and she is going to goddamn deliver it. The word ‘brassy’ was made for all of her roles, from Pretty Woman to Erin Brockovich to her bikini-wearing movie stealing part in Charlie Wilson’s War -- and I would even extend to that my favourite line from Julia Roberts in a movie most people hated, August: Osage County –
“Eat the fish! BITCH.”
(Love. I love it so much.)
So. She’s 50. She does not have to prove anything to anyone… but she didn’t tap out altogether. She’s back in the mix. She’s playing the game… but if the roles she plays now are less warmly received than ones she’s played before, she risks tarnishing her reputation. By the same token, she’s older, playing a lot more parents - she’s not as entitled to play the roles she once was. It’s not impossible to navigate, but it’s tricky.
Does she want another Oscar nod? Or to make us all write articles about ‘Julia is 60!’ after a decade of taking risks? Will she graciously do interviews in a decade when and if one of her children is a rising star, or will we still cling to Julia’s every word, for Julia’s sake? I’m really not trying to falsely inflate the stakes, but there’s a lot more to decide on when you’ve been riding the memory of a peak.
It’s still a few weeks until Show Your Work begins for Season 2. But I feel like The Career Choices of Julia At 50 is the kind of topic that will put us right back in the groove.